Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpThis month we mark the 50th anniversary of one of Arlington’s noblest out-of-the-limelight institutions – the Gulf Branch Nature Center.

I’ve long maintained a personal relationship with that contemplative haven near my boyhood home. But for thousands, Gulf Branch embodies Arlington’s visionary environmental progressivism – a movement that today finds parks competing for land against schools, affordable housing and fire stations.

The nature center’s image as a “jewel of smart growth” is a reason it will be celebrated at June 2 symposium at the Central Library put on by our county’s parks protectors, followed by a June 12 outdoor party onsite in the woods off Military Road.

Among the impresarios is Duke Banks, vice president of the Friends of Gulf Branch Nature Center. “Gulf Branch established a precedent of finding a cottage along a stream,” he says. “It was birthed in the 1960s” when the county sought green space to offset coming commercial development of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

My Gulf Branch memories include pulling tadpole eggs from the creek and hiding in the woods to smoke. As a 12-year-old, I delivered The Washington Post to the cottage’s last private owner before the county in June 1964 bought it for $135,000.

The larger stage for the center’s creation was set by the incipient environmental movement of the early 1960s, says naturalist Jennifer Soles. A National Park Service commission on outdoor recreation had recommended collaborations by local, state and federal governments. Arlington’s planners incorporated open space in a land-use plan.

The 1960 elections brought Tom Richards to the county board. An Air Force intelligence cartographer and hiking enthusiast, Richards recalled that his campaign tapped into a “consensus that community planning was not being well done.”

In 1963, the board began applying for federal matching funds to acquire dozens of acres around Gulf Branch. That came as Interior Secretary Stewart Udall was creating open space and trails along the Potomac, the G.W. Parkway and Four Mile Run.

Boy, did Gulf Branch pay off. The center grew to offer 290 programs for children and the public in 2015, says Soles. Sights for kids ages 1-92 include the caged Ms. Owl, the indoor-outdoor beehive, a pond surrounded by labeled flora, the blacksmith shed with skilled volunteer craftsman, and the Robert Walker house showing rustic domesticity in 19th-century Arlington.

In February 2009, during the Great Recession, County Manager Ron Carlee proposed a budget with $23 million in cuts. Gulf Branch would have closed, which is why Friends of the Gulf Branch Nature Center formed.

Looking back, county board member Jay Fisette says, “The county manager proposed many creative and controversial cuts and consolidations. I think this was meant as a serious proposal during difficult budget times. Ultimately, while dozens of staff positions were eliminated overall, the county board continued to fund Gulf Branch at a somewhat reduced level. Residents strongly advocated for it and committed to generate private funds to assist with future operating and capital costs.”

Retired homeowner Karl Liewer, whose Military Road house is surrounded by nature center land, donated his easement to the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust – to protect against development in perpetuity.

“It’s been here long enough that people who came as kids now bring their grandchildren,” says naturalist Soles, “Some things haven’t changed in Arlington, and it’s nice to have places you can connect to your personal history.”

* * *

Congressman Don Beyer wowed the Arlington Historical Society at its May 13 banquet with tales from his illustrious family history.

Citing a love of history since his days at Williams College, the Democrat described his great-great-grandfather as an Estonian count who in the 1860s or ‘70s tried to assassinate the Russian Czar.

Beyers’ stateside ancestors included grandmother Clara Mortensen, an economist, consumer and labor activist who knew Justice Louis Brandeis and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

She would lead the Labor Department’s Children’s Bureau and launch its Bureau of Labor Standards in the 1930s before becoming a foreign aid advocate. She remained, until her death in 1990 at 98, Beyer made clear, an avid Democrat.